An ambitious, timely biography of Soong May-ling (1897–2003), better known as Madame Chiang Kai-shek.
To tell this complex story, Pakula (An Uncommon Woman: Empress Frederick, Daughter of Queen Victoria, Wife of the Crown Prince of Prussia, 1995, etc.) steps back and patiently recounts the twilight of the Manchu Dynasty, when May-ling’s father, Charlie Soong, was educated by Methodist missionaries, studied in American universities and achieved business success in thriving Shanghai. Sending his children to study in America seemed a natural progression, part of the reform movement when most of China was still agrarian, peasant and illiterate. May-ling graduated from Wellesley College in 1917, fluent in English and American ways, which would later enable her to deftly navigate between East and West. Meanwhile, Charlie had made an important friend and ally in the doctor turned agitator Sun Yat-sen, who had resolved to drive out the Manchus, and further befriended Sun’s hot-headed deputy Chiang Kai-shek. Charlie’s political connections determined that his three daughters would find powerful husbands. Ai-ling married into a prominent banking family that would later finance the Nationalist government; Ching-ling married Sun; and May-ling married Chiang (even though he was already married). Pakula portrays May-ling from an evenhanded sampling of correspondence, memoir and public record, as she was widely traveled and interviewed over the years, drumming up American support and dollars for the Nationalist cause in the face of Mao’s Communist incursions. Irrepressible, charming, venal and loyal to the cause of her husband, May-ling seemed to be equally admired and vilified. Although the Americans ultimately concluded that they had “picked a bad horse” in Chiang, his wife proved a shrewd, fascinating character around whom Chinese history momentously convulsed.
A winning combination of measured, balanced research and critical evaluation—the definitive account of an important figure in 20th-century Chinese politics.